India dig their own grave
A disciplined and committed effort in the field gave South Africa every chance of winning this series, helped immeasurably by a post-lunch batting performance that illustrated all the worst qualities of this Indian line-up. Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis were both magnificent in the tourniquet role, and with India's best batsmen treating Paul Harris like he was cloned from Bishan Singh Bedi and Hedley Verity, the complexion of the match changed utterly before tea was even brewed.
Graeme Smith was also able to call on the sheer pace and aggression of Dale Steyn to mop up the tail, a task he accomplished admirably with a little assistance from match officials who couldn't count to six. Steyn's intervention cut short a courageous rearguard action from Dinesh Karthik, who batted with inventiveness and purpose that shamed more illustrious team-mates.
South Africa would have been buoyed as soon as they walked onto the park and waited for the Indian openers. Instead of the Wasim Jaffer-Karthik combination that had batted so well for 153 in the first innings, they looked up to see Virender Sehwag walking out to resume a disastrous partnership that hadn't gone past 25 on this tour. By attempting to fix what wasn't broken, India got what they deserved, with Steyn and Makhaya Ntini having both openers back in the pavilion long before the board ticked into double figures.
Sehwag had batted without much discomfort from No.6 in the first innings, but against the new ball that does a little, he increasingly resembles a drunk trying to stumble to the washroom. Those that say that it was a brave gamble that failed conveniently forget that Karthik's batting had shown there was no need for a wager with fate in the first place.
But having endured that horror start, and the miscommunication that resulted in Sourav Ganguly walking to the crease a full six minutes after Jaffer's dismissal, India batted purposefully till lunch to leave themselves in command. Ganguly was struck once again, but shrugged it off to bat with the assurance and fluency that typified his halcyon years higher up India's order.
His tame exit - another dead-bat steer into the cordon - triggered the most bizarre passage of play. Harris kept pitching into the rough as expected, but neither Dravid nor Sachin Tendulkar showed any inclination to take him on. Given the excessive respect paid to him, you wondered at times who the legends were, and who the novice playing his first Test.
Between Ganguly's dismissal and tea, India eked out a pitiful 31 in 19.4 overs, four of the runs coming in leg byes. And as is often the case, the run drought played right into South African hands, with three wickets falling in the process. Harris bowled 22 overs on the trot, exhibiting great control and composure, but neither Dravid nor Tendulkar went down the pitch or did anything else to upset his length and make him think twice.
These are not ordinary batsmen. They are two of Indian cricket's batting trinity - the other, Sunil Gavaskar, watched in bemusement from the commentary box - and men with a proud record of excellence in every cricket-playing country in the world. To see them flounder against a debutant was surreal, and you shuddered to think what kind of message it sent to the batsmen waiting their turn in the dressing room.
Karthik showed how it could be done later, with a couple of cuts, and an audacious reverse sweep out of the rough, but by then the momentum had long since shifted. And when the bowlers weren't spot-on, India happily shot themselves in the metatarsals with running between wickets that would have embarrassed a pensioners' side.
The mix-up between Tendulkar and VVS Laxman was an absolute shambles, with one man turning without bothering to see what the fielder was doing, and the other pausing halfway through the second run. Though it was a borderline decision, such headless-chicken cricket didn't merit any better.
Zaheer Khan's run out was as wretched. Karthik had already touched down at the bowler's end, and could clearly be heard yelling out 'Stay' at least twice. What possessed Zaheer to turn around and set off as though it was the last ball of a one-day game, only he can explain.
In the midst of such chaos and mindlessness, Smith captained with tremendous awareness and poise. Ntini was held back in the awareness that he might leak runs, and the less speedy duo of Pollock and Kallis reined the game in beautifully. And once Harris showed signs of fatigue, the tactics were changed again, with the accent on blasting out the tail with Steyn's pace.
Having made all the right moves on the field, he then played some lovely strokes against the new ball before settling down to the serious business of surviving Anil Kumble. On this pitch, scoring 156 more will still be an ordeal, especially once the ball softens and the pitch gets more abrasive. Two seasons ago, his resolute unbeaten 125, combined with a fine farewell 74 from Gary Kirsten, won South Africa a share of the spoils in New Zealand. If he can find an ally tomorrow, the prize will be even greater.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo